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Donuts, tote bags and petrol vouchers: companies offer sweeteners to lure workers into

There were cupcakes, doughnuts and $500 petrol vouchers on offer, as well as promises of free training. On Thursday, thousands of job seekers descended on Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport for a jobs fair, to hear about vacancies that baggage handling, catering, retail and security companies – as well as major airlines and government departments such as Border Force and the federal police – were looking to fill.

More than 30,000 people were employed at the airport before Covid, but 15,000 jobs are estimated to have been lost throughout the pandemic, said Geoff Culbert, the airport’s chief executive.

Culbert said despite the promising turnout to the job fair, where more than 40 businesses had set up stalls, long queues and travel disruptions resulting from staff shortages will continue to plague the airport.

“I think that every additional employee that we can add at the airport is going to help with congestion, but the reality is these shortages are going to be with us for a while longer,” he said.

“This is the tightest labour market that we’ve seen in 40 years. We’ve got 5,000 jobs that we need to fill and that’s going to take time,” he said.

While many of those who turned out on Thursday were school leavers and unemployed people looking to enter the industry, printed CVs in hand, a large proportion of those attending were people employed in other sectors hoping for a career change as well as former aviation workers let go during the pandemic.

Many were also those who had lost jobs due to vaccine mandates, with several stall workers telling Guardian Australia that prospective workers were inquiring about whether available positions required them to be vaccinated.

Qantas, which has suffered shortages of baggage handlers in recent months as it attempts to overturn a legal ruling that it illegally outsourced almost 1,700 ground staff, did not have a stall at the Thursday jobs fair.

However, Swissport, one of the companies Qantas and Jetstar have contracted for baggage handling services, was one of the most popular stalls. One of its stall workers said the company was desperate to ramp up its number of baggage handlers. She said they were only hiring part-time contracts, but were offering workers full-time hours under these contracts, at a rate of $23.41 an hour.

The Border Force’s stall was overwhelmed with interest for the 80 jobs at Sydney airport. “I wasn’t expecting this at all, it’s nuts,” said one ABF employee as they handed out one of their last remaining blue tote bags to a school leaver who had inquired about a full-time job offering a salary as high as $57,000.

“I only lined up for the tote bag; I just nodded along to what he was saying,” the school leaver told the Guardian minutes later.

At the adjacent stall, the Australian Federal Police was seeking to fill “heaps and heaps” of jobs, one of its employees said, as uniformed officers toting machine guns fielded questions from those interested.

“It’s not just working at the airport,” one of the employees said, claiming that after an entry level job had been served at the airport, officers could move into intelligence roles overseas. “If you want to work in intelligence in Washington, The Hague or Islamabad, this is where you start,” he said.

Meanwhile, at a taxi company’s nearby stall, flyers and job pamphlets sat in a pile mostly untouched.

Certis, which Sydney Airports contracts to provide security screening services, has been struggling to restore its workforce to pre-Covid levels and had to offer incentives to staff in recent months to turn up to work.

Their stall, however, was one of the most popular at the jobs fair, with aviation screening jobs offering $24.12 an hour plus a $1.70 allowance – a competitive salary, compared with baggage handling and other manual roles.

Rex, a regional carrier which has expanded to major city routes in recent months while also withdrawing several regional services, was advertising for pilots, flight attendants, engineers, ground handlers and customer service workers. Private jet charter companies were also desperate for staff to meet an increase in demand for their services, one worker said.

Large crowd around the Australian Border Force booth
The Australian Border Force booth was overwhelmed with interest for the 80 positions available. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Luxury retailer Burberry was also trying to attract staff at the fair, as well as food outlets such as McDonald’s, Red Rooster and Sumo Salad.

Among those at the jobs fair was Michael, a public transport worker who lives nearby and did not want his surname published for fear his employer would realise he was looking for a new job.

“I’m not a big gun person, so the AFP stall threw me off a little bit,” he said.

After perusing all stalls, with a collection of tote bags under his arm, Michael was keen to apply for a security screening job with Certis.

“I’m looking for a bit of a change in life, and this sounds exciting, and because they’re so desperate they’ll accept me part-time so I can study on the side.”

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